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A Genetics Based Approach to the Debate on Sick Animal Treatment

By Cervantes Pagan & Yasha Rubakha

In the current political climate, animal treatment has become a hot topic of debate. More specifically, different groups of activists aim to change the way that animals are protected by laws and regulations put forth by the government and other affiliated agencies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one such government organization that plays a major role in the regulations regarding the treatment of livestock on farms.

One of their most controversial sets of policies are those limiting the treatment of sick or injured organic livestock which; for example, using any antibiotics or most common veterinary medications makes an animal lose organic status. In official documentation regarding this policy, the USDA does not clearly state the reasoning for the policy, leaving the justification and objective of the policy up to interpretation. In this article, we explore the potential ‘genetic’ justification of the USDA’s policy, and consider the ethical and moral implications of such reasoning.

As already stated, the USDA’s policies for treating sick and injured livestock are up to interpretation. Many argue that the USDA simply implemented their policy to ensure that everything being eaten by the consumer is in fact organic in nature. In other words, it is argued that the USDA wants to protect the validity of the ‘USDA Organic’ label by making sure that no unnatural chemicals/medications were fed to animals that were intended for human consumption, even if it resulted in small trace amounts of the chemical being found in the food. This perspective neglects to consider any longer-lasting effects of the policy, only taking the policy at face value with its immediate consequences.

One aspect to consider is the effectiveness of genetically selecting in this way. What are the most common causes of death in livestock, and, thus, of attempts to cure them? Are they genetic, and therefore, does treating them risk spreading the disease to future generations?

According to USDA statistics, “In 2015, non predator causes accounted for almost 98 percent of all deaths in adult cattle and almost 89 percent of all deaths in calves.” Additionally, in adult cows, “Respiratory problems accounted for the highest percentage of deaths in cattle due to nonpredators (23.9 percent), followed by unknown causes (14.0 percent) and old age (11.8 percent).” In calves, meanwhile, which are below the reproductive age and therefore more affected by genetic selection, “Respiratory problems also accounted for the highest percentage of deaths in calves due to nonpredators (26.9 percent), followed by calving-related problems (17.8 percent) and digestive problems (15.4 percent).”

These statistics are very vague, but each of these known causes of death has both genetic and non-genetic aspects. Escaping or surviving a predator attack is up to both the genes of the prey and the circumstances of the attack. Respiratory problems are often correlated to genetic conditions but can also be caused by bacterial and viral diseases. Calving problems can be caused by dysfunctions in the mother or calf, and digestive problems can be caused by genetically caused issues with the digestive tract. However, a large percentage of deaths is simply un-described. This likely consists of a variety of diseases and rarer conditions.

Another consideration is how much of an effect genes have on the immune system. This is because veterinary medications are the main target of the USDA policy, and they are generally used to treat pathogen-related diseases. This means that limiting medication selects for a stronger immune system, but only if genetics have a significant effect on the immune system. This means it is important to consider whether selecting for a stronger immune system is viable. A July 2000 review article on this topic in humans found that genetic susceptibility is a major factor in diseases, with identical twins almost always having higher concordance rates than non-identical twins. This means that while environment is a big factor too, selecting for a stronger immune system probably would have an effect on the gene pool of humans. Livestock can be hypothesized, but not with certainty, to also follow this pattern.


Coffey, L. (2015, July). Treatment of Sick or Injured Organic Livestock. Retrieved June 11,

2022, from

National Animal Health Monitoring System. USDA APHIS | National Animal Health

Monitoring System. (2015). Retrieved June 11, 2022, from

Salvetti, M., Ristori, G., Bomprezzi, R., Pozzilli, P., & Leslie, R. D. G. (2000). Twins: Mirrors of

the immune system. Immunology Today, 21(7), 342–347.


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